Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #10

سِكّين

root: س-ك-ك / noun / plural: سَكاكين / definition: knife


As September swept in, I made a resolution to read more in both English and Arabic. Novels, specifically, because I miss getting lost in them as I used to.

And I’ve now, for various reasons, found myself in a situation where I have multiple novels on the go—an unintentional fulfilment of my resolution, I suppose—including some in Arabic.

In this literature translation post, we’ll be going step-by-step through an excerpt of one of those novels, namely: لا سَكاكين في مَطابِخ هذه المَدينة (literally: There are no knives in the kitchens of this city) by Khaled Khalifa (خالد خليفة), which I began to read on the recommendation of my teacher.

(Note that the phrase لا سكاكين in the title is an example of the absolute negation!)

Let’s take a look:

هذيان سعاد المتواصل قبل موتها بأسابيع قليلة جعلنا نفكّر بمصيرنا. أصبحت صورتنا العائليّة المعلّقة على جدار الصالون مصدر ثقل نفسي نحاول تحاشيه وكذباً فاحشاً لا يمكن إخفاؤه، أبٌ هجرنا مع منقِّبة آثار عجوز علّمتها أمّي صنع مربى المشمش، وأخت بائسة لا نعرف لماذا تهذي، تفتح فمها محاولة التنفّس بصعوبة فائقة، نحبّها وتعتبرها أمّي عاراً شخصيّاً يجب إخفاؤه عن الجميع


Seeing as this would make for a very long post otherwise, we’ll be exploring this excerpt across two posts!

As always with this series, we’ll break the excerpt down into smaller sections for the literal word-by-word translations, then we’ll look at the translation as a whole and make edits.


Let’s begin with the first sentence:

هذيان سعاد المتواصل قبل موتها بأسابيع قليلة جعلنا نفكّر بمصيرنا

هذيان

root: ه-ذ-ي

noun

هَذَيان = “hallucination”, “delirium”, or “jabber”

this noun is the subject of this nominal sentence (جملة اسمية) and is therefore مرفوع

hence, this word ends with a damma: هذيانُ

this word is actually definite as it’s the first word in a two-word definite idaafa—because of its position (i.e. being the non-final word in an idaafa structure), it cannot take the definite article, الـ

سعاد

root: س-ع-د

noun

سُعاد = a female name, Su’aad

like other female names, سعاد is a diptote (ممنوع من الصرف)

a diptote is a word that doesn’t take tanween nor kasra (except in certain circumstances)—it takes either a damma (when مرفوع) or a fatha (when منصوب or مجرور)

seeing as سعاد is the second word of the idaafa, it’s مجرور—so it takes a fatha

together, هذيانُ سعادَ means “Su’aad’s delirium”

المتواصل

components: الـ + مُتَواصِل

root: و-ص-ل

form VI active participle

مُتَواصِل = “continuous” or “incessant”

متواصل here is acting as an adjective, describing the noun هذيان

remember that adjectives have to agree with the noun they describe in four ways: number, gender, case, and definiteness

هذيان is singular, masculine, definite, and مرفوع—so the adjective must be the same: المتواصلُ, where الـ makes the word definite

together, هذيان سعاد المتواصل = “Su’aad’s incessant delirium”

قبل

root: ق-ب-ل

preposition

قَبلَ = “before”

موتها

components: مَوت + ـها

root: م-و-ت

noun

مَوت = “death”

موت is مجرور because it directly follows a preposition, therefore it must end in a kasra

ـها = the possessive suffix, “her”

so قبل موتِها = “before her death”

بأسابيع

components: بِـ + أَسابيع

بِـ = preposition, “by”

أَسابيع, from the root س-ب-ع, is a plural noun meaning “weeks”—the singular being أُسبوع

أسابيع is مجرور here because it directly follows a preposition (بـ)—but, because this broken plural is a diptote, like the name سعاد—it takes a fatha

قليلة

root: ق-ل-ل

adjective

قَليل = “few”

قليلة here is describing أسابيع—it’s feminine because non-human plurals are treated grammatically as the feminine singular, so to match the non-human plural أسابيع in gender, a ـة needs to be added to the adjective

قليلة also has to match أسابيع in terms of case, therefore it has to be مجرور—so despite أسابيع having a fatha because it is a diptote, قليلة takes kasratayn: قليلةٍ

بأسابيع قليلة = “by a few weeks”

جعلنا

components: جَعَلَ + ـنا

root: ج-ع-ل

form I verb, past tense, third person, masculine singular

جَعَلَ / يَجعَلُ = “to make”

the subject of this verb is هذيان, hence the third person masculine conjugation of جعل

ـنا = the object pronoun suffix, “us”

so جَعَلَنا = “it made us”

in this extract, we have another verb following جعلنا—when a present tense verb follows جعل, it means “to make (someone) do something”

نفكّر

root: ف-ك-ر

form II verb, present tense, first person plural

فَكَّرَ / يُفَكِّرُ بِـ/في = “to think of or about”

نُفَكِّر plus the following preposition, بـ = “we think about”

but, looking at this word in its context, we’d translate جعلنا نفكّر as “it made us think about”

بمصيرنا

components: بِـ + مَصير + ـنا

so the preposition بِـ is associated with the preceding verb, as mentioned

مَصير is a noun from the root ص-ي-ر

مَصير = “destiny” or “future”

ـنا = the possessive pronoun, “our”

so مصيرنا = “our future”

مصير is مجرور because it immediately follows a preposition, so it takes a kasra: مصيرِنا


Now the sentence as a whole:


هذيان سعاد المتواصل قبل موتها بأسابيع قليلة جعلنا نفكّر بمصيرنا

Su’aad’s incessant delirium before her death by a few weeks made us think about our future


Onto the next part:

أصبحت صورتنا العائليّة المعلّقة على جدار الصالون مصدر ثقل نفسي نحاول تحاشيه وكذباً فاحشاً لا يمكن إخفاؤه

أصبحت

root: ص-ب-ح

form IV verb, past tense, third person, feminine singular

أَصبَحَ / يُصبِحُ = “to become” (this is one of the words we looked at in Arabic Observations: Time of Day and “to Become” Synonyms!)

أَصبَحَت = “it became”—the subject of this verb is the following feminine noun

صورتنا

components: صورة + ـنا

root: ص-و-ر

صورة = “photo” or “picture”

ـنا = the possessive pronoun, “our”

seeing as صورة is the subject of this sentence, it’s مرفوع

صورتُنا = “our photo”

العائليّة

components: الـ + عائِليّة

root: ع-و-ل

nisba adjective

عائِلة means “family”—عائِليّ is the nisba adjective derived from it, it could be translated as “family” or “familial” depending on the context

this adjective is describing the preceding noun—remember that صورة is definite because it has an attached possessive pronoun

so, عائليّ also has to be مرفوع, feminine, and definite: العائِليّة

صورتنا العائليّة = “our family photo”

المعلّقة

components: الـ + مُعَلَّقة

root: ع-ل-ق

passive participle of form II

the form II verb عَلَّقَ / يُعَلِّقُ means “to hang”, so its active participle—مُعَلَّق—means “hung up” or “hanging”

this passive participle is acting as an adjective here describing صورتنا, just like the preceding adjective, so it also must agree with it in all the usual aspects: المعلّقة

على

preposition

على = “on”

جدار

root: ج-د-ر

noun

جِدار = “wall”

this word directly follows a preposition, so it’s مجرور

جدار is also the first word in a two-word idaafa

الصالون

components: الـ + صالون

noun

صالون = “living room”

الصالون is the second and final word of the idaafa

together, جدارِ الصالون = “the wall of the living room”

مصدر

root: ص-د-ر

noun

مَصدَر = “source”

this noun is the predicate (خبر) of the verb أصبحت—i.e. it is what the family photo has become

like with the predicate of كان, the predicate of the verb أصبح is always منصوب

however, whilst the noun “مصدر” is indefinite, it is the first word in a two-word indefinite idaafa—so it can’t take tanween, it just ends with a fatha: مصدرَ

ثقل

root: ث-ق-ل

noun

ثِقْل = “weight” or “burden”

this is the second word in the idaafa, and is therefore مجرور

مصدر ثقلِ = “a source of burden”

نفسي

root: ن-ف-س

adjective

نَفسيّ = “mental” or “psychological”

this adjective is describing the noun ثقل, and is therefore also مجرور

together, مصدر ثقل نفي = “a source of mental burden”

نحاول

root: ح-و-ل

form III verb, present tense, first person plural

حاوَلَ / يُحاوِلُ = “to try”

so نُحاوِلُ = “we try”

this verb is the start of a relative clause—i.e. a clause giving more information about the preceding phrase, مصدر ثقل نفسي, in the main clause

relative clauses are usually introduced by relative pronouns, words such as “that” and “which” in English, and words like الذي and التي in Arabic

however, no relative pronoun is needed to introduce this clause in Arabic here, seeing as the phrase it relates to (مصدر ثقل نفسي) is indefinite

تحاشيه

components: تَحاشي + ـه

root: ح-ش-و

verbal noun of form VI

the form VI verb تَحاشى / يَتَحاشي means “to avoid”, so its verbal noun can be translated as such, or as “avoiding”

ه = an object pronoun referring back to مصدر ثقل نفسي—this is not translated in English

the object pronoun is needed here because what the relative clause is describing (مصدر ثقل نفسي) is not the subject of the verb in the relative clause (which is نحن, implied in the verb نحاول)—whenever a situation like this occurs, an object pronoun must be used in the relative clause to link back to the noun or noun phrase being referenced

when we look at it put together, مصدر ثقل نفسي نحاول تَحاشيهِ = “a source of mental burden (that) we try to avoid”

this word marks the end of the relative clause

وكذباً

now, continuing on from the main clause…

components: وَ + كِذباً

وَ = “and”

كِذب, a noun from the root ك-ذ-ب, means “a lie”

it’s منصوب here as—like the word “مصدر”—it is also the predicate of the verb أصبحت

فاحشاً

root: ف-ح-ش

active participle of form I

فاحِش = “foul”, “dirty”, or “atrocious”

فاحش acts as an adjective here, describing the preceding noun, كذباً—hence the matching منصوب case

لا

لا = negation of present tense verbs

here, we’re entering into another relative clause describing كذباً فاحشاً

يمكن

root: م-ك-ن

form IV verb, present tense, third person, masculine singular

يمكن is an impersonal verb, used to mean “it is possible”

however, it’s negated by the preceding لا—so لا يمكن means “it is not possible” or “it cannot”

إخفاؤه

components: إخفاء + ه

root: خ-ف-ي

verbal noun of form IV

the form IV verb أخفى / يُخفي means “to hide/ conceal (something)”

so إخفاء = “to conceal” or “concealing”

إخفاء is the subject of this relative clause (i.e. of the verb يمكن), therefore it is مرفوع

ه = the object pronoun, referring back to what the relative clause is describing, كذباً فاحشاً

when we add together إخفاء and the object pronoun, it’s written as إخفاؤُهُ—notice that the hamza which was on its own (ء) is now written above a waaw (ؤ); you can find out why in the post Seats of the Hamza (ء)!

together, كذباً فاحشاً لا يمكن إخفاؤه = “an atrocious lie that cannot be concealed”


Looking at the second part as a whole:

أصبحت صورتنا العائليّة المعلّقة على جدار الصالون مصدر ثقل نفسي نحاول تحاشيه وكذباً فاحشاً لا يمكن إخفاؤه

Our family photo hanging on the wall of the living room became a source of mental burden that we try to avoid and an atrocious lie that cannot be concealed


And we’ve finished part one! Here’s what we’ve got:

هذيان سعاد المتواصل قبل موتها بأسابيع قليلة جعلنا نفكّر بمصيرنا. أصبحت صورتنا العائليّة المعلّقة على جدار الصالون مصدر ثقل نفسي نحاول تحاشيه وكذباً فاحشاً لا يمكن إخفاؤه

Su’aad’s incessant delirium before her death by a few weeks made us think about our future. Our family photo hanging on the wall of the living room became a source of mental burden that we try to avoid and an atrocious lie that cannot be concealed

…and with a few edits:

Su’aad’s incessant delirium in the few weeks leading up to her death made us think about what would become of us. Our family photo hanging on the living room wall became a mental burden that we tried to avoid and an atrocious lie that could not be concealed


Translation notes:

  • I swapped “before her death by a few weeks” to a more natural-sounding “in the few weeks leading up to her death”
  • I chose “what would become of us” to replace “our future”—just a stylistic choice
  • I deleted “source of” before “mental burden” because it sounded slightly clunky—when we cover the whole extract, I might edit that part again because there’s probably a better way to convey that idea
  • I changed the tense in the relative clauses from present to past tense to match the tense of the rest of the sentence, which sounds more natural in English

And there we have part one of our literature translation! Hopefully, part two will be posted next week—or the one following, if I’m super busy—these posts take more time than you’d think!

!في أمان الله


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